It’s been a big year for the commercial drone industry. 2017 marks the first full year of FAA’s part 107 operators license being available. There are over 70,000 pilots flying commercially in all sort of applications. In fact, even the type applications opened up significantly. We saw the first “Flights Over People” waiver issued (Congrats CNN!) and new airspace authorizations.
And there were a lot of airspace authorizations because 2017 also marks the prototype-launch of the Low Altitude Airspace Authorization and Notification (LAANC) program to let commercial operators get airspace authorization in seconds rather than in months.
Lots of new commercial operators combined with lots of new airspace with instant authorization is a tremendous boon for the commercial drone industry. Since its inception, the only real constant in this nascent industry is radical change. And we’re going to be seeing no shortage of it in 2018.
As the Chief Pilot of a commercial drone operations platform, I get a front row seat to the changing tides of the industry. These are my predictions for 2018. You may find them wrong or even offensive. I welcome your thoughtful comments, as well as your unfiltered vitriol.
Prediction: Like an unemployed millennial, drone operations are moving back in-house.
When we started our company almost three years ago, we saw a plethora of freelance operators. Companies were looking to hire freelancers to offset the risk, expense, and regulatory burden of flying. Unfortunately for these freelance piloting companies, they did such a good job that organizations saw a lot of value in having a drone program. Today the regulatory burden has largely been removed and the value proposition has been proven.
Predictably, we then saw a lot of “Tiger Teams” forming in large organizations. Just a few people, just a few drones, just to see if this whole crazy “drone thing” was for real. These groups of highly skilled experts treated their projects like small startups in large organizations. And they proved their ability to scale.
Now, they’re going to scale — quickly. We see large organizations treating drones like email or personal computers. This is a fundamental shift in the ecosystem. I’m reminded of the year when you didn’t need to be a computer hacker to write an email to your coworkers. 2018 is going to be that year for drones. Instead of paying third parties, large organizations are going to train existing employees on how to operate drones safely. We’re already seeing the trend increasing quite a bit. There will undoubtedly be some growing pains, and some “Reply All”-style mistakes, but the net result is a group of well-educated operators adding value to their organization with drones.
Prediction: Your commercial drone will have a Remote ID system before the end of 2018.
The UAS ID and Tracking Aviation Rulemaking Committee made headlines in 2017 for issuing a set of largely divided opinions on how best to answer the question, “Who the heck is flying that?” It’s a real problem, particularly since commercial operators can be following every regulation and law to the letter but still make people extremely nervous and create extra work for first responders.
It seems likely that the FAA will move to create a mandate that if you’re not a hobbyist, you’re going to have to identify yourself remotely. Naturally, there is a lot of uproar over such a regulation. However, a lot of the people so vehemently opposed to such a thing have a wallet in their suit pocket that contains a government-issued ID. They have a registration for their car in their glove box. They have an N number on their Piper Cub. Remote ID is a common-sense policy that’s going to empower commercial drone operators. If you don’t want to or ideologically can’t deal with Remote ID, you’re probably going to be relegated to Part 101.
Prediction: Consumers will, in some places, finally be able to get that burrito delivered by drone.
The Executive Order from President Trump is, at best, an interesting attempt to circumvent the lengthy rule-making process. I think it’s going to cause a lot of trouble by creating drastically different operating climates and odd standards amongst them all. However, it’s conceivable that out of all this chaos comes some town or resort that is able to offer drone delivery. It will be their novelty du jour and the Instrabraggers and Facebloggers of the world will flock for their “Burrito On Belay Selfie.”
The Amazon’s, Google’s and Flirtey’s of the world have put in so much effort to perfecting these systems over the last few years that they’d be silly to not be dialing every municipality they can find to offer their services. Everyone one of those Instagram celebs is going to have their drone in that selfie. It’s a veritable goldmine of good PR. Make sure you catch the roundup piece when you next read an in-flight magazine, “7 Best Places in The US to Get Drone Delivery”…
In conclusion, 2017 has been an amazing year for the commercial drone industry. Big pieces of the puzzle are starting to fit together. People, Process, and Product are all aligning to unlock the value of drones and 2018 looks like it will be rapidly accelerating all the pieces towards fitting together. Drones are growing up, and it’s quite the sight to see.
About the Author
Joshua Ziering is the Co-Founder and Chief Pilot of venture-backed drone operations software company Kittyhawk and a founding member of the FAA Unmanned Aviation Safety Team.
Joshua is an FAA Part 107 certificate holder and has been flying all manner unmanned aircraft for over 15 years. As an accomplished flyer, Josh has flown professionally for the NHL, ABC Television and various manned-aviation airshows.
Josh regularly writes about drone related topics and eagerly shares his love of aviation and often-polarizing opinions on where it’s headed at industry conference presentations and panel discussions. Joshua is a self-taught programmer and holds a degree in poetry from Arizona State University.